Thankfully, The Reverend Martin Smith had some insights into these passages. He noted all the anxiety expressed in the stories and the Psalm and Paul’s letter. The Psalm, Joseph and Paul assuage some of this angst. Jesus lays out a pattern for dealing with the world.
Eugene Peterson restates the Psalm this way: “Don’t bother your head with braggarts or wish you could succeed like the wicked. In no time they’ll shrivel like grass clippings and wilt like cut flowers in the sun. Get insurance with God and do a good deed, settle down and stick to your last. Keep company with God, get in on the best. Open up before God, keep nothing back; he’ll do whatever needs to be done: He’ll validate you in the clear light of day and stamp you with approval at high noon. Quiet down before God, be prayerful before him. Don’t bother with those who climb the ladder, who elbow their way to the top. Bridle your anger, trash your wrath, cool your pipes---it only makes things worse. Before long the crooks will be bankrupt; God-investors will soon own the store. Before you know it, the wicked will have had it; you’ll stare at his once famous place and---nothing! Down-to-earth people will move in and take over, relishing the huge bonanza. Bad guys have it in for the good guys,…They’re out to beat up on the harmless, or mug that nice man out walking his dog. A banana peel lands them flat on their faces—slapstick figures in a moral circus.” Rather a harsh picture, really.
In the story of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers-who had treated him very harshly-you can almost feel the tension in the room. The brothers are so frightened that they can’t answer Joseph’s questions about their father. Joseph wants to know if he will ever see his beloved father again-nothing else matters to him. Joseph has had a miraculous rise in power and he sees it as God’s salvation for his family, for his people. He wants to provide for his whole family, even the ones who sold him into slavery. This story speaks of abundance within famine, forgiveness for truly distressing wrongs, and kisses instead of anger. Which sounds a lot like Jesus’ instructions for living.
“To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person. If someone slaps you in the face, stand there and take it. If someone grabs your shirt, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them! If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that’s charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that. … Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst. Our Father is kind; you be kind.
…Be easy on people; you’ll find life a lot easier. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back---given back with bonus and blessing. … Generosity begets generosity.”
When I read about praying for those who give us a hard time, I think about my mom. For years, she didn’t go to church because of a falling out over baked beans when I was about 4 years old. Mom had some mental health issues that were often debilitating. Waves of depression, manic activities like shopping and cleaning, and paranoia. Because of her mental illness she was shunned by some and blackballed from activities by others. These hurts loomed larger than life inside her mind. She made sure my sister and I attended church but she would not go.
As an adult, I corresponded through letters with my maternal grandmother and we talked about our faith and the usual mundane things in life. When Grandma could no longer live in her home, she moved to a retirement apartment near my mom and my mom started managing her correspondence for her. I had no idea Mom was reading my letters to Grandma. As my mom read the letters, she decided that, for me, she would start attending a church. She found a good church community and almost immediately became that person who turned up every time the doors were open. Rummage sales, church services and Bible studies.
My mom met a supportive group of people at that church. She was also on a good dose of meds for her mental health. She talked to the Bible study group and the pastor about her feelings of persecution-her paranoia. The pastor suggested that when she had these feelings that people were “doing her wrong” that she pray for them. Mom told me about this in conversations and letters. Mom noted that prayer specifically for people she felt were out to get her, was very healing for her. It changed the way she looked at people. It mellowed her.
I try to remember this example of Jesus’ teaching. There is nothing wrong with pointing out injustice-Jesus did it all the time. And, Jesus is reminding us that we are all made from dust and to dust we shall return. We are all carrying around whatever is good about us within these physical and imperfect bodies-that will die someday. That is what Paul is telling his folks at Corinth.
It doesn’t matter what our resurrection bodies will look like. What matters is what we do to nourish our spiritual bodies that will rise with Christ. We will all die and what we put in the ground bears no resemblance to what will rise in glory and power.
And, we can do what we can to remember that corruption and greed and violence will die: That the perpetrators of these things will slip up on the banana peel and look ridiculous-some day. That we can offer a kiss instead of anger. That we can set aside our anxieties and sit with God and listen and absorb the Holy. That we can be generous because God is generous. “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. [Now that is comforting!] Be merciful, as your Father is merciful.”